- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 29, 2005

NEW ART CITY: MANHATTAN AT MID-CENTURY

By Jed Perl Knopf, $35,

641 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY JOSEPH PHELAN

In the years immediately after World War II, New York City replaced Paris as the dominating center of the art world and the source of a succession of new forms like abstract expressionism, pop and minimalism. While the bare outlines of this story will be familiar from such sources as Tom Wolfe’s “Painted Word,” the movie “Pollock” or the penultimate chapters of your college art history textbook, what we have lacked is a book with a sense of the enormous intellectual and aesthetic exhilaration this period had for those who were part of it. There’s also not been one that offers a description of the impressive range of their achievements.

Jed Perl, art critic for the New Republic, whose previous works includes “Paris Without End: On French Art Since World War I” has for over a decade carefully studied the written and visual record of this era, seemingly reading everything that anyone of note has written about it and looking again at all the art. In “New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century,” he braids together the many strands of this complex story celebrating the “tough-minded aestheticism” of the age of Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko when a rich array of individual talents set about redefining the grand old themes of art.

This book on the artists of the “New York School” begins with a great teacher, the “casually messianic” Hans Hofmann. Through his lectures and workshops at his school on 8th street in Manhattan and in Provincetown in the summers, he helped to shape the sensibilities of some of the most promising talents among the rising generation including Joan Mitchell, Robert De Niro, Sr. and Lee Krasner.

“A tough minded visionary who brought to New York the secrets of modern,” Hofmann lived in Paris at the turn of the century, knew Picasso and Braque and had painted with Matisse. From these giants he learned that modern art is not an imitation of life but rather a reality created from the life inherent within the painter’s medium itself. What made Hofmann a visionary was his belief that a painter can give form to “the most complex and ecstatic dimensions of human experience.” What made him so tough minded was his insistence “that only by concentrating on the small practical things in the studio — by attending to the nitty-gritty, to the step by step construction of a painting or sculpture — would an artist ultimately discover the big truth, the grand ideas.”

The fierce and feisty give and take of ideas which seems to have been a part of the life of New York for as long as anyone can remember turns out to have a special resonance in the artistic life of this period. For these were the years when the first wave of French philosophy hit American shores, and Mr. Perl shows how Manhattan was awash with ideas derived not only from existentialism’s first prophets like Sartre and Camus but also from their sources in Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Marx. (In what is surely a deliberate omission he leaves out any reference to Freud.)

If New York artists of this period were passionately in quest of the “Big Truth” with a capital “T,” they tended not to seek for it through the more standard intellectual channels such as attending lectures or reading books or even reading articles in the influential “little magazines” like Partisan Review which so happily distinguished this period. Rather they tended to “osmose” their ideas from exhibits in museums and galleries and from people with whom they would converse on the street, in coffee houses or at the bar in some saloon. Indeed, the great ideas of the late 1940s and ‘50s were “in the air” at such regular avant-garde hangouts as the Cedar Tavern or the Artists Club.

Frequenting such places one could inhale such concepts as “the sublime, the dialectic, the romantic, the heroic, the abstract, the empirical, the quotidian, the nihilistic” along with the secondhand smoke clouding the room. Leading New York intellectuals like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg, Hofmann, de Kooning and the lesser known John Graham (whom Mr. Perl has rediscovered in this book) were accustomed to talking in these terms with an “easygoing philosophical grandiosity” and they in turn influenced the lesser lights of the day to follow in their intellectual path.

As the book reminds us, artists and writers always live in two cities at once: the particular place and the city of the imagination. “New York was not just bricks and concrete and glass and steel, it was also the mysterious concentration of experiences and attitudes and aspirations that were drawn together by the city’s sumptuous, penetrating light.” For Mr. Perl it is the “dreams and illusions” which “shape the life of artist and their art,” while it is the great city which tended to shape these “dreams and illusions.” Although these two levels were mixed up in the minds of many of the figures in his book, the author’s achievement is to show how often these dreams and illusions led to life enhancing art.

This book is as much a loving portrait of Manhattan at perhaps the peak of its livability and optimism as one of the dramatic personae of the New York art scene at mid-century. Mr. Perl gives us a most vivid sense of the geography of the neighborhoods where most of the artists were living. Many of the key players in the story concentrated themselves below 14th Street and further downtown below Houston Street, “often in cold water flats and lofts.” The physical boundaries of their world tended to be delimited by the Hofmann School on Eighth Street, the Artists Club and the galleries on 10th Street, the Cedar Tavern and the San Remo in the Village. Midtown with its Bauhaus inspired skyscrapers, world class museums and galleries was yet another center of their world.

Mr. Perl does not neglect the practical side of this art world. In the selling of the American public on the new art, the role played by art dealers, gallery owners and museums cannot be overestimated. They may have been merchants, but they were for all that at the same time idealists whose complex campaign of education and amusement made them “oxygenators” of the new. The Museum of Modern Art which under the savvy leadership of Alfred Barr, Jr. was at the absolute center of the evolving visual arts scene in the 1950s did more than any other institution to bridge the gap between the artist and the studio and the general public. Barr himself wrote in a populist fashion and his pamphlet “What is Modern Art?” was widely disseminated in public schools as well as translated to numerous languages.

In the later chapters of the book devoted to the ‘60s and ‘70s, Mr. Perl focuses on a number of artists of whom he greatly approves such as Fairfield Porter and Donald Judd. Yet he also tracks the baleful influence of those like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol who he finds guilty of paying too much attention to their public relations. “The new shock at mid-century was how modernism in art, the great twentieth century invention, was turning into a kind of feel-good art” Tracing this tendency to vulgarize high art back to Marcel Duchamp, Mr. Perl sees in this “nihilist” Frenchman the seeds of all that he dislikes in the art scene of the ensuing decades.

Mr. Perl’s investigations show that the themes, obsessions and passions that had dominated European art in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were relived in New York City in the time period extending from the late 1940s to the early 1960s. It was a period when these European phenomena were absorbed, recast and reshaped into a uniquely and distinctly American cultural product thus making it deserving of the label “golden age” in terms of what went before and what came after.

Joseph Phelan teaches aesthetics and the philosophy of art at The Catholic University of America and is the features editor of artcyclopedia.com. He can be reached at joe.phelan@verizon.net.

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